Confessions of a Maine Radio Announcer

By Walter J. Beaupre

(Article originally published in Radiogram,July 1991, pp. 6-10)

It was 1944 and near the end of my freshman year in college. Professor Brooks Quimby had asked to see me after his "Introduction to Public Speaking" class. I hung back, waiting for the professor to answer student questions about the assignment. Finally he turned to me: Walt, do you drink?" I was startled. "You mean beer, wine, whisky? No, it's against my religious beliefs." "Then would you be interested in a night announcer's job at WCOU?" By way of explanation, the local Yankee/Mutual affiliate in Lewiston, Maine had until recently employed an announcer during the 6-12 midnight shift who had two significant flaws:
    1. he became bored easily, and
    2. he drank alcoholic beverages on the job to wile away the lonely hours.
Matters came to a head when the announcer -- loaded with cheer one night -- decided to put on the air a specially made transcription announcing the end of World War II. The transcription featured the voices of President Roosevelt and other dignitaries, thanking God for the sudden, unhearalded Allied victory.

The good people of the listening area -- lead by a local daily newspaper which competed with WCOU for advertising dollars -- were properly outraged by this "cruel hoax during the darkest hours of the War!"

WCOU apologized; the announcer was fired; and the business manager of the station held down the night shift until a sober replacement could be found. Most of the key personnel at the station were away fighting for Uncle Sam; the owner, Faust Couture (from whose last name the call letters were taken), station manager and ace sports- caster John Libby, chief announcer Bob Payne, and announcer/musician Laverne "Miff" Coulton.

So it was business manager Oscar Normand who -- all in one fateful evening -- inter- viewed me for the job, showed me how to run the RCA console and turntables, pointed out the pile of commercial copy, watched me as I stumbled through the routine for a while, and left me to my own devices.

WCOU, the only radio station since 1938 in the Lewiston/Auburn area, was part of the Couture family dynasty. The family had pioneered French language newspapers in the U.S. The first floor of the building housed the paper Le Messager;business offices for the radio station took up most of the second floor; the third floor was reserved or the studios and control room which were (as of 1938) state of the art. The UPI teletype machine was on the second floor where it would be "handy" to both the newspaper and the radio staff. When I was the "radio news staff" and had to dash down to the teletype machine for news while a record was playing, I didn't find it wonderfully convenient -- especially when the newspaper guys had gotten there first!

Other than being a terrible announcer (and I have off-the-air recordings to prove it) the first few weeks were marred by one minor tragedy. To understand my plight the reader needs to understand the setting. From 6 PM to 8 PM, programs alter- nated between network and local shows. For example, the Yankee Network News was on at 6:00, followed by state/local news at 6:10; Fulton Lewis Jr. was on at 7:00 with local commercial tie-ins. Strictly local programming included live music shows from Studio 1 and sports shows etc. from Studio 2. The control room where I worked exclusively when I was alone contained the master console and turntables, two metal cabinets filled with Standard Transcriptions, no more than a dozen 78 rpm records, and a rack of special transcribed 15-minute shows scheduled for specific dates and times.

Paulette, the receptionist for the station, was responsible for putting the tran- scribed shows for each day in the rack. On this particular occasion she had forgot- ten Leave It To The Girls, which was scheduled for 10 PM. I went to cue-up the 16-inch disk a few minutes before ten. No transcription. I was horrified. The show must go on! At 9:59:30 I cut away from the network broadcast, switched on my mike, read a commercial, and then said to radioland, "I can't find Leave It To The Girls scheduled for broadcast at this time; so there will be a period of silence while I hunt for it!" I turned off the mike and dashed for the mail room on the second floor. Five minutes later the show went on the air.

Oscar, my mentor and wartime boss, patiently explained that the show was sustain- ing [a public service show for the WAVES), no harm done; and I should have simply put on some records to fill the fifteen minute spot.

Local newscasts from a station with NO news gathering staff were always a problem, and on weekends and holidays a veritable nightmare. We relied on the publicity handouts of state agencies, colleges, and the like. Sometimes in desperation we generated news. For example, if we knew that 6 deaths were predicted for the Maine highways over the Labor Day weekend we'd call the Mayor and ask for his comments. Being both inarticulate and trusting he would say, "You boys make a quote for me!" The quotes we dreamed up were often so outrageous that we should have been sued for defamation of character.

On One occasion two part-time staff announcers were convinced that they knew how a local crime had been committed. Hungry for news at any cost, they took an old shirt, shot a hole in it, and planted it near the scene of the cime. They they pro- ceeded to "discover" it and scoop the media. The scoop backfired, because when the police arrived on the scene to inspect the shirt -- it had mysteriously disappeared. The crime was eventually solved; the shirt incident was not!

For me the most dramatic news story occurred in February, 1952. I left my apartment for work before 4 PM. One of my regular duties was to do the Six O'Clock News (sponsored locally by this time). I edited the world and regional stories, but two local items were handed to me just as I went on the air. One of the local items concerned a fire in progress at 13 Lowell Street -- the address I had left two hours before! Somehow I got through the rest of the newscast, but fifteen minutes later I viewed in person the smoking remains of all my worldly possessions.

The station had many live local shows, especially during the early evening hours. Many of them were built around two personalities: Roselle Coury and Marion Payne Louisfell.

Roselle was a raven-haired song stylist from Berlin, New Hampshire, who broke into radio by buying her own air time, selling spot announcements within her shows, and arranging for the additional musical talent. She drove the six hours from and to Berlin, New Hampshire, every day -- summer and winter -- that the show was aired. By the time I knew her she had been so successful in selling her talents that the station hired her full-time rather than compete with her! Not all of her daily shows featured her singing voice. Roselle did a women's show in the morning with recipes, birthday greetings, and the like. She also did an early evening show called the Lucky Dollar Program.

Roselle was multi-talented. She also had a temper as volatile as it was violent. One evening on the Lucky Dollar Program she perceived that one of her telephone contestants was trying to con her into awarding him "Lucky Dollars." Before she had exhausted her vocabulary of four-letter words I cut her off the air and played an inter- lude of organ music. She then proceeded to roast me. I tried to calm her ruffled feathers by pointing out that Ididn't want her fired and the station sued. She went on with her show, and we were good friends after that. I wrote comedy sketches and continuity for many of her variety programs. Roselle Coury was a first class talent in every respect: a terrific speaking voice and a fine pop singer. There were few women, local or network, on the airwaves in the '40's and '50's any better than Roselle Coury.

Of course, Roselle was blessed with a superb studio organist, Marion Payne Louisfell. Marion began her career in silent movie house orchesetras as a pianist and later as a Migfhty WurliTzer organist. On the Hammond organ, Novachord, and Steinway grand in Studio 1 Mrs. Louisfell was incredible. Every pop tune that came into the studio she would write down quickly in her own notational system. Then she could play it in any key for any vocalist. Marion, the sister of Maine's Senator Fred Payne, was the kindest, most patient, most humble, most charitable person I have ever met. Her charming Gaslight Serenade had a loyal following at 12 noon. Marion could have been "big time" except that she was too busy making other lesser talents sound good -- including this writer.

Early in 1947, when WCOU pioneered FM broadcasting in Central Maine, I had an idea for a stereo music show, Conversations In Music. The show was to help promote sales sales of FM sets. Studio 1 was now wired so that two microphones could broadcast over FM and two microphones could broadcast separately over AM simultaneously. Marion's voice and her Hammond were emphasized over FM while my voice and the studio Steinway were emphasized via the AM signal.

The result (wherever there was an AM and FM radio in the same room tuned to our stations] was perhaps the first commercially sponsored 13-week series in stereo. Marion cheerfully put up with the countless hours of rehearsals I needed because I was a rank amateur on the piano. Her musical arrangements made me sound good -- even when I was lousy. Unfortunately, neither of us ever heard the show in stereo. There was no equipment invented in 1947 to let us hear a playback stereophonically.

This was the Golden Era of live talent in local radio. In addition to Roselle Coury and Marion Payne Louisfell, WCOU employed singers Paul Daigneau (a Ray Eberle type), Gideon Saucier who did the Crosby tunes, Dolena McIntire who had a glorious operetta voice, and Georgette Giboin who could do the classics and grand opera. For a season we featured a young war veteran Bill Hall during an afternoon show. This was at the insistance of the station owner who believed that the horribly wounded Marine deserved a chance to find himself again. I was paid extra for serving as his accompanist/coach. Bill had blackouts and blinding migrane headaches during some rehearsals, but he never let us down at showtime. Bill's voice had the same sort of appeal that later made super- stars of Buddy Clarke and Perry Como. He could break your heart with a ballad.

Bonnie Laird was another talented songstress who filled in during times when Roselle Coury was on maternity leave. Bonnie's husband , Johnny Marsh, had a magnificent baritone voice with which he sang "Ol' Man River" when he wasn't reading commercials.

A superb jazz pianist Gratien Ouellette took over Mrs. Louisfell's duties during times when she was seriously ill. After being told by the station management that there was no "future" for him in radio, Gratien went to New York City and had a briliant career, the favorite accompanist of many top recording stars.

There were moments of hilarity on and off the air. On one occasion the morning announcer Hal was expecting Johnny, the "Call for Phillip Morris" diminutive ambassador, to show up for an interview at 8:45. Hal put his records away in anticipation -- Johnny didn't show. Hal talked and stalle, and stalled and talked. It was almost 9:00 and Hal was apologizing for the 10th time and getting more and more disgusted. Suddenly the door to the studios burst open and in waltzed Johnny with his entourage. Just as suddenly Hal blurted into the open mike: "Jesus Christ! The little son-of-a-bitch finally made it!"

On another occasion a hillbilly band was rehearsing in Studio 1 while the Boston Red Sox were on the air from Fenway Park. In our local station control room two staff announcers noticed that the band members were having a heated discussion. Why not listen in?

But instead of routing the Studio 1 mike into the control room, it was accidentally routed out over the airwaves, and with it a stream of cusswords and vulgarities. Horrified by what had happened but ever resourceful, one of the announcers cut off the Red Sox game momentarily, apologized for the "foul language in the radio booth at Fenway Park," and assured listeners it wouldn't happen again.

The station carried the nightly commentary of Fulton Lewis Jr., a great favorite of conservative listeners, but a colossal blow-hard in the opinion of two announcers -- one of them yours truly. One night my like-minded crony and I hit upon a plan to cut fulminating Fulton down to size. While Mr. Lewis Jr. was ranting and raving we silently opened the microphone in our control room. During his dramatic pauses we made throat-clearing noises, coughed, blew our noses, and perpetrated other antisocial sounds. In the middle of this merriment the telephone lights blazed insistently. It was the boss telling us to "cut the crap...instantly!" It had never occurred to us that anyone we knew actually listened to the creep!

Like all other "hip" radio announcers we tried soaking commercial copy in lighter fluid and igniting it while a colleague was earnestly selling. That wasn't as effective as walking naked into the line of sight of a buddy who was trying to wax enthusiastic about swim suits. When tape recorders first came into use after the war, a Brush Sound Mirror was wired into our console. If one were wearing earphones while reading the news, some clown would turn on the tape recorder which played your own voice back to you a split-second later. The results were pretty funny -- unless you happened to be the newscaster. We soon learned to tolerate delayed feed-back at high sound levels.

Perhaps the most monumental breakup for this announcer came during a broadcast for which some federal agency had provided a script to be read locally. Rudy Hamel (who later in life had a brilliant career in the legal department of Bristol-Meyers) and I started reading the script "cold" without ever checking the contents. We soon discovered that we were supposed to be farm experts talking about the virtues of "sticking pigs" and "slaughtering hogs." We both knew what the other person was thinking and we began to break up. Finally it got so bad that we had to cut ourselves off the air and play the standby organ transcription.

This time we were convinced that we were in deep, deep trouble with the Front Office. Actually the outcome was very touching. A woman wrote to the station thanking "those two fools" for saving her life. She had just received word that her soldier husband had been killed in Germany, and in her grief planned to end her own life. Her radio was turned on, and when she heard us trying desperately not to break up she became hysterical along with us.

Mostly, radio was serious business in war time. We were forbidden to broadcast weather reports or play song requests at specific times. These could be signals or the enemy who lurked off the Maine coast in Nazi submarines. Much of the military news was strictly managed by the Office of War Information. As an example, lists of military casualties and the names of local people killed in battle or lost at sea were marked "Hold for your next local bond drive."

My other job to help pay my way through school was as pastor of a country Methodist Church. Often I would open the station Sunday mornings at 7:00; write my sermon during the network religious shows, and leave at about 10:00 when Conrad Giguere came in to do the French language program Le Messager En Parade. On one particular August Sunday morning in 1945 I checked the UPI teletype to discover that the U.S. had dropped an "atom bomb" on Hiroshima. I incorporated this news into my sermon and probably preached the first -- if not the best -- of the warnings about a possible nuclear demise for this old planet earth.

I did Big Band remote broadcasts on my Saturday nights off. I did them because I thought it was fun. Only the engineer got paid. My reward was to stand beside the likes of Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey, Johnny Bothwell, Gene Krupa, and others. As pop records became a studio staple after the war there were many interviews with the Stan Kentons and the Arthur Fiedlers.

Hollywood stars playing summer stock came in to plug their current productions. I happen to have a recording of an interview I did with Moe Jaffe went over to the piano in Studio 1 and played his latest song, "If I Had My Life To Live Over." I secretly thought it was a "bow-wow," but Buddy Clarke and countless other crooners proved me wrong.

Although most of the locally produced efforts were music and variety shows, we did not avoid drama at WCOU. The Bates Manufacturing Company sponsored a dramatic series written by one of my college classmates, Florence Furfy, called Do You Know Maine? It was excellent. I coped periodically with local groups such as Hadassah who used me as narrator but supplied volunteers for less demanding parts. The cause was noble even if the productions were sometimes less than professional.

Norman Gallant and his wife Catherine Rice did some very fine dramatic shows over WFAU, our sister station in Augusta, Maine. In addition, Cay did some brilliant dramatizations for children along the lines of Irene Wicker, "The Singing Lady." One summer I wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello which we aired over WFAU. Fortunately, I walked off with the rehearsal tape of the show which I saved. In my opinion it holds up reasonably well against some of the things NBC, CBS, and Mutual did during the same period. Local radio did a lot of drama -- some of it well worth repeating today!

Although I left radio broadcasting in 1948 to begin a college teaching career, I "moonlighted" while teaching until 1957. Many years later my son worked his way through college doing radio work in the same market area but not the same stations. I was able to observe the change in technology and the dynamics of local radio in the 1980's. I think my era was more fun, more creative.

True, working conditions in radio today are better than in the 1940's. For a starting salary of 60 cents an hour I operated the master console, read spot announcements, wrote commercial copy for certain accounts, directed radio plays, wrote and acted in comedy skits, sang in a jazz trio, played piano solos, accompanied singers, hunted for records in the right key for singers to do voice-overs, cataloged records, performed newscasts, read poetry, wrote and produced commercial jingles, and did background color for sporting events. There was never any paid holiday nor time-and-a-half for overtime. But it was exciting. It was fun. I was very young.

While I was in college I heard most of the Mutual Network shows out of one ear with a textbook in my lap. Certain shows could always pull me away from the books. I liked The Falcon, The Shadow, Orson Welles' The Black Museum, and my favorite was Wyllis Cooper'sQuiet, Please! What a kick it is to listen to these same shows today and give them my undivided attention -- thanks toSPERDVAC.

[NOTE: Thanks to a WCOU engineer of the era, the late Colby Cooke, many variety and musical shows mentioned in this article were preserved as air-checks recorded on glass-based 16-inch transcriptions and stored in Mr. Cooke's Wilton, Maine, barn. Before his death he gave the transcrip- tions to the author who transferred the programs to cassette tapes at the University of Rhode Island Media Center and donated copies to the Maine Broadcasting Museum. Some of them have been rebroadcast for Old Time Radio Fans in Central Maine.

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